January 10, 2012

Behind the Kohli face

We don't yet know what Virat Kohli will be, but he might have played the off-drive of the summer

A cricketer walking the wire is hard to look away from, and for four days last week Virat Kohli was a sight for prying eyes. He'd batted with a time bomb in his pocket in Melbourne; would there, for Kohli, even be a Sydney? Rohit Sharma's name was mentioned. The Kohli question - not the main question, hardly a question at all, an idle side-curiosity - bounced around kitchen tables all New Year. Only when the umpires were winding towards the SCG gate did the answer reach me, via a friend's text message: "Sadly, yes."

Soon India were four down, the Test was an hour and a half young, and Kohli was out there batting on a Tuesday. After the vanishing blur of Melbourne it felt good to fix eyes on him properly. That beard - well kept, yet redolent of a ragamuffin fistful of Indians we'd come to know in Australia and to like: Bedi, Chandra, Gundappa, Kirmani, Shiv Yadav. The bowlers, Pattinson especially, gifted Kohli leg glances and hip flicks he could have played sleepwalking. Also, they appeared to be straining too wide of off stump. Some trap? To a dozen of his first two-dozen deliveries, Kohli played the leave-alone. Whenever a bowler struck straight and short he jumped with the rising ball and cuffed it safely down. On 13, there was an off-drive off Peter Siddle - maybe the off-drive of the summer - wristy, simple, a half step, then punch, not much backlift, his left elbow so pointy it moved Richie Benaud, 81, to ruminate on how he'd long admired the technical rock-solidness of this kid, 23.

Eleven minutes after that Kohli was out caught by the wicketkeeper.

He bats right-handed, nothing showy about his stance, a small bend at the knees. What else? We know no other Indian ever got to 1000 runs so fast, although that was in one-day cricket - might be meaningful, might not be. No one anywhere scored so many one-day runs last year. It could be that Kohli stands at the brink of magical things. Or it could be otherwise.

When he was 18, newspapers reported his father died one morning and Kohli said this - "I want to bat" - then carried his overnight 40 not out to 90, steered Delhi past follow-on strife against Karnataka, was adjudged caught-behind to a ball that grazed pad not bat, and after looking at the replay left the ground, three or four hours before his father was cremated.

We know, too, that he tweets. "We are humans not machines," he tweeted on the first day of this year.

It used to be the way, even in the Test match hothouse, that a cricketer could have a nothing-happening-here few days and hope that no one would peer too closely at the scorecard; that no one saw. But on Wednesday I saw Kohli, wearing orange-rimmed sunglasses on a cloudy afternoon, hobble seven ginger steps and bowl eight unthreatening overs wrong-footed, chest-on and from wide of the crease, a cross between a quarter-pace Max Walker and a defeated frog clinging to a plughole.

How runs must trickle for the endangered batsman, with a million eyes - or a billion, if you're Kohli - on you. Some crack up. Others fight it and narrowly avoid cracking up

Then he fumbled at cover when Clarke was on 170.

Later he raised his left middle finger at some hecklers over the boundary who said things about his mum and sister.

On Thursday he made a fine diving save beside the midwicket fence when Clarke was on 319.

To bat is hardest. One mistake and you're out is the eternal gnawing tension in the psyche. Some weeks, the equation gets more gruelling: one mistake and you're out for the day, out of the team, out of the short-term sponsorship reckonings of the car company that helped pay for the loan on your recently purchased house. Still you are expected to size up the next ball - speed, height, length, line, deviation - with millimetric precision. The TVs-everywhere age twists the pressure near panic point. It's said a watched pot never boils and watched clock never turns; how runs must trickle for the endangered batsman, with a million eyes - or a billion, if you're Kohli - on you. Some crack up. Others fight it and narrowly avoid cracking up.

Garry Sobers used to walk to the middle with, he said, his head "overloaded with thinking because every game of cricket has its own personality, its own mood".

Zaheer Abbas would tell himself some mornings while waiting his turn to go in, "Come on, Zed, the records show you are one of Pakistan's most successful batsmen."

Greg Chappell, on dark duck days, would be thinking, inside, "Come on, bowl so I can score."

Kohli is no Sobers, Zaheer or Chappell. He's Kohli - and what that is isn't clear. Maybe Rohit Sharma's time is coming. But we'll always have that off-drive off Siddle. In the second innings, on Friday, Kohli hooked a four, drove another four and played the leave-alone a dozen times in 23 balls.

A trap, that confirmed it. Next ball, he - but I can't say for sure that I saw.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • RogerC on January 12, 2012, 13:53 GMT

    Kohli will be the next captain of India. He will stay for a long time in international arena. He has the skill and the personality for this.

  • usernames on January 12, 2012, 8:56 GMT

    Reading the comments, one would somehow believe that Kohli is useless. Believe it or not, a cricketer -- unless he is Sachin -- takes some time to mature and perform on the international level. Kohli has it in him; he needs to be given a fair run and the confidence. Every match he plays nowadays is like his last. His frame of mind would be horribly negative right now if he were to read some of the comments. The kid is very, very good and will get even better in 3-4 years. Rahane, Rohit, Mukund, Kohli, Raina, Tiwary *are* are future of Indian batting and from these few, you will see some of the best batsmen of the next generation. It is though common to downplay any youngster, especially when he's from India. :)

  • dummy4fb on January 12, 2012, 7:25 GMT

    I enjoyed this well written article. I also agree with its main premise that the verdict on Kohli is sometime in the future. To all the hysterical comments of either he being the next Tendulakar or he is the "funniest thing" in test cricket, why not let his performance make a statement. He is all of 6 tests old and even our great demi-god Sachin scored his first International century after two years of playing international cricket.

  • er.Vaibhav on January 12, 2012, 6:08 GMT

    @Rumy1 temperament and patience ok kohli lacks them...but skill,technique and class no you got that wrong he is a class act and plays complete copy book shots with everything right from eyes on the ball to follow through.. @akash shrivastava more of funny thing seems to be that you still expect vvs and dravid to continue for 2-3 yrs. mate have you forgotten this is cricket not a indian govt. job

  • dummy4fb on January 11, 2012, 19:59 GMT

    Kohli? In Test Match... This is one of the funniest thing I heard so far. Other funniest things were like "We got Raina as replacement of Dada" :)

    Well, these young guns like Raina, Kohli and Rohit are good in T-20 and ODI only. However, once VVS and Dravid retire (I believe that both can play at least 2-3 years without any issue and can contribute as well), these "young-guns" will automatically get chance to play but I also doubt that at that time we may not win a match in Indian itself. I did not include Sachin as he will not retire until he scored his 100th Century and then don't think about his 150th century.

  • Rumy1 on January 11, 2012, 18:33 GMT

    Kohli may be good in shorter versions but for Tests one needs superlative technique, temperament, patience, skills and class. Kohli has none. He is in the same mould as Raina or Yuvraj, Rahane or Mukund. All thes eguys look superstars in ODIS and T20s but look so ordinary in the real thing-Tests. All these guys have already been sorted out by international top class bowlers for their poor technique and shortcomings. Top level international bowlers will make lives of these lesser mortals hell if they are played at Test level. Selectors should know that shortcomings and technical flaws of such batsmen are sliced and diced on computers by opposition teams and bowlers and are targeted easily for their quick dismissals. I would save these young folks who have known shortcomings against genuine pace, bounce and swing for ODIs and T20s. Ashwin falls insame mould. He has already been sorted out by West Indies and Aussies batsmen by say likes of Clarke, hussey, Ponting, bravo, chanderpaul, et

  • er.Vaibhav on January 11, 2012, 16:34 GMT

    @big_al_81 real problem is that you guys can never digest that any young indian cricketer is worth of any attention...lets have a column of any player of your country and you will be happy...let me tell you what he has done...at such a young age this guy kohli has became second highest and highest odi run scorer in consecutive years,he acheived 2nd rank in odi,and became the fastest indian to score one thousand runs..now what else do you expect from an young cricketer to break sachin and bradman's records in his first year...then sorry mate you have to bring an alien or something for that.

  • big_al_81 on January 11, 2012, 14:05 GMT

    Not really sure what one player has done to deserve such a lots of column inches. Nothing in tests as far as I can see. There are plenty of more promising players around who get nothing written about them - it's probably a blessing in disguise. Not clear what the point of the article actually is by the end of it...

  • MaruthuDelft on January 11, 2012, 12:06 GMT

    You know what? Take out Dravid and Laxman and put Kohli at number 3; he would score 30,40 and 50....Take out Tendulkar too and let him feel what he felt when playing against Australia and New Zealand at home last time and South Africa and England away..Kohli would score a hundred at least every three tests whatever and wherever the opposition is...He is not able come to his elements when these seniors are around but it is not their mistake; it is his flaw.

  • er.Vaibhav on January 11, 2012, 12:00 GMT

    kohli is india's future...he is not playing well alright but tell me who is ???he deserves more chances in place of seniors...those who are predicting him as an average cricketer should remind themself that no average cricketer scores second highest and highest runs in a year irrespective of version of the game...rohit sharma is also a very good talent but no one shuld forget that he also had very bad phase of carrier he was not even close to success which kohli had so far...so if rohit can make such a good come back then kohli will also do the same definitely...all the best to both of them

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